December 6, 2013
It’s time to drag a beast out of it’s cave—it’s time for a national dialog about the most vicious and most pernicious of the so-called Animal Spirits, the one that has for millennia sunk into oblivion every society and civilization afflicted by it. The expression, “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” has been around for a long time to define the attitudes and demeanor of certain people. When these people buy secondnd base and then first it becomes their ballgame, they make the rules, and they always win. This analogy well represents what is happening in the US and in the world today. Even the pope has taken notice and has expressed dismay over what he calls “unfettered capitalism.” A bad case of pleonexia, the ruthless and arrogant assumption that others exist for one’s own benefit, with complete disregard for any considerations of common humanity. Doesn’t sound good, does it?
Do complex societies collapse? Of course they do and have from the dawn of history. The story of civilization is littered with failed states. When societies become excessively extractive in nature— when wealth has been redistributed unequally between the many and the few, collapse has inevitably followed. This is the story of extractive overreach.
In their book, “Animal Spirits”, Nobel Prize winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller explain the dynamics which drive the world of economics from pillar to post but never name the “beast.” I will venture to say that it wasn’t because they don’t know the beast, rather that it must not be spoken of. Lying at a comfortable remove from the name we dare not say, “Animal Spirits” is their euphemism of choice. (Alan Greenspan gave us “irrational exuberance.”)
Denial has become a style—don’t actually call things what they are but find ways to sanitize or neutralize them. Orwell called this “newspeak.” There are very good reasons for this: if we called some things what they really are, the social consequences would be dire. For example, Rebecca M. Blank, a first-rank candidate to serve on the Obama Council of Economic Advisors, was rejected for having said several years earlier, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.” For having used the term “redistribution,” Ms Blank was not appointed.
It’s going to be a rough ride for this country as we establish just what kind of society we are becoming, what we are being driven to, against what we want to be. From Wisconsin to Texas, from one coast to the other, legislation to restrict voting rights, health care, even a simple resolution in Wisconsin to honor the children and teachers who were shot to death at Sandy Hook, could not pass the partisan legislature. Heartless, yes, and heartlessness of the sort that beggars the imagination—callow heartlessness that serves no purpose other than to attend a depraved, mean-spirited social agenda. The intellectual and moral polarization this represents is stark. Sadly we haven’t had leadership in recent years that measures up to the task at hand, to staunch the bleeding of social commitment, to truthfully explain to the country what is happening and why. Neoliberals are no more prone to truthfulness than Neoconservatives, and the rest of us are stuck in the middle.
It is, at times, impossible to grasp the many fronts in the assault on the American social contract. For example, the pawns and agents of the Animal Spirits are attacking society’s commitment to educate children. Schools are but one pawn in the game; there are many others: middle-class Americans who are in the process of becoming lower-class Americans are fair game. Like wolves, the Animal Spirits are circling with the scent of money in their snouts. Republican/Tea Party loyalists are howling about health care, unemployment, veterans’ health care, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. Our Neoliberal president seems willing to throw those to the curb to achieve his “Grand Bargain.” The beast wants to tear down this edifice of civilized regard for others that has been built over the years to provide aid and comfort, food and medical care for the part of society that isn’t wealthy and never will be. The beast wants to maintain low wages so low that employers like Walmart will, out of the goodness of their hearts, sponsor food drives for their underpaid employees who can’t afford groceries enough to feed their families. The American middle class is fast becoming what an 18th-century Dutch economist called “the laborious poor.”
The Animal Spirits rise again and again. They are indefatigable. Economists offer euphemisms and technical terms because it is safer to frame the question as an economic abstraction when, actually, it is concretely moral. Greed is what we are talking about here. Greed has always been a moral question.
When the world reaches a point where the pope feels compelled to speak out about greed it is certain we have turned a significant corner in the human condition and the civil society. If we never call things what they are we will never deal with them. The arc of greed throughout history has only ever led to the collapse of every society so afflicted. Let’s call it what it is—pure, simple, old-fashioned, down-and-dirty greed. It should have been a four-letter word.